We had the good fortune of connecting with Kierra Aiello and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Kierra, is there something you can share with us that those outside of the industry might not be aware of?
In museums, there are many more career options than most people think. I received a master’s degree in art history and museum studies, and I still don’t think I realized the multitude of positions until I had the chance to work across the museum. We have accountants, education professionals, facilities managers, publication coordinators, registrars, art preparators, you name it!
On top of that, we have hundreds of volunteers that help us serve and welcome the community. Unlike other major corporations, however, everyone who works at the museum cares about the way we preserve, display, and teach our visitors about art and culture. At the Denver Art Museum (DAM), we joke about being a big “DAM fam” because this shared passion brings us together and creates deep connections. Communicating across departments and working together as a team, despite the vast number of different functions we serve within the institution, is easy and natural.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
Most people who work in museums will tell you that they had to take several twists and turns in order to make it to their current position. It’s not a field where very many of us can say “I want to do that!” and then end up in that position, or even close to that department, right out of college. Many of us are highly educated and just jump in where we can to get our foot in the door. For me, that was precisely the case. From 2014 to today, I’ve worked at the DAM, switching departments and networking my way up to my current position of corporate partnership associate in the development department. The space that a museum creates, one meant for learning, exploring, and letting the artworks speak for themselves, is a beautiful thing to me. I knew that I wanted to surround myself with that environment, no matter the position.
In college, with little work experience outside of the food and retail industries, I saw a posting for gift shop associates at the Denver Art Museum. Once I got the job, I made friends with volunteers and coworkers alike while selling glass and putting price tags on books. It’s truly the best form of retail. Visitors are excited about their visit and all the products we offer, and love talking about the experience they had in the museum or their art related memories. This position was a crucial step in my museum journey. It was a foot in the door, and in my mind, at least I received the emails that went out to the entire organization! The flexibility of that department was also exactly what I needed. It provided a foundation from which to grow and a net to fall back on when I wanted to try new experiences. Schedules changed and co-workers could pick up extra shifts so that I could study abroad for months, intern at the Smithsonian for a summer, or even have an unpaid internship at our own institution. During my master’s program, I became the curatorial intern for the textile art and fashion department.
At the time, this was “the dream” position. Each day involved working on object research to flesh out museum records, helping with presentations, or facilitating visiting lecturers. The best part, however, was visiting the homes of collectors and artists in order to catalog possible donations. The result of some of this work was the display of the DAM’s exhibition Drawn to Glamour: Fashion Illustrations by Jim Howard. Although the projects of this internship were dreamy (at least to me), curatorial assistant positions are hard to come by and even harder to get, so I shifted into what was available. Thanks to a recommendation from a colleague at the University of Denver’s Hampden Art Study Center, I became a gallery maintenance team member. The museum has a dedicated and amazing facilities team that cleans public areas, but gallery maintenance professionals clean the artwork on display and ensure there are no pest infestations.
For the most part, this means cleaning pedestals and platforms, carefully dusting artworks (we have several ways of doing this depending on the material, age, etc.), and checking bug traps. On the rare case that the artwork may be contaminated with arsenic or other chemicals that were used as preservation agents in the 19th century, this requires suiting up in Tyvek and wearing a gas mask and full protective gear. It really takes all kinds of tasks, small and large, to run a museum!
Next was a simple transition into the role of collections assistant. If you’re like my mother, you may think that means collecting any outstanding payments on behalf of the museum, but you’d be wrong. As part of collections staff at the time, you packed and moved art to prepare for the DAM’s renovation of the North Building (now the Martin Building). I learned how to properly pack an Indigenous basket, bubble wrap a vacuum, track locations using barcodes, and Tetris boxes into larger boxes and onto shelves for storage. Art handling is itself an artform, and this team skillfully transitioned tens of thousands of objects out of the building. After the move out of the Martin Building was over, I picked up some extra shifts at the gift shop again to maintain my connection to the museum. One day, the manager of the exhibitions department came in to buy his sister a gift. We started chatting, I explained my connection to the museum, and when a job opened soon after, I interviewed and was offered the position.
As an exhibitions assistant, most days are spent doing everything in your power to make the museum into the perfect blank canvas to let the art shine. During this time, my colleagues taught the fine art of making a consistent texture when painting a pedestal, seamlessly patching a hole in a wall, and removing vinyl lettering to make poetry (another story for another day). Although this job was incredibly fun, and a great way to get exercise at work, I knew that it would not be sustainable for me long-term. While working another position as the Manager of Art Restart at The Gathering Place, I had the opportunity to attend an awards ceremony where I knew the development team from the DAM would be present. I made a point of talking to every team member there and followed up with a request for an informational interview. Now, I’m in the development department of the museum where my affinity for building relationships can be put to good use when fundraising. Specifically, I work with the museum’s corporate partners. Memberships aren’t only for individuals and their families, they’re also for organizations that want to support the arts community and provide their employees and customers with access to the museum and its programming.
Throughout all these positions, I was internally trying to work out a long-term career goal. I could have stayed in several of those jobs and found a lot of fulfillment, but I also knew that I wanted to grow into something that was more suitable to my personality. I found development through informational interviews with professionals around Denver, and once I decided on it, I focused all my networking and professional development goals into getting a position in that department. I cannot recommend highly enough the value of informational interviews to start figuring out what careers would work best for you and eventually landing the job you want. So, I would not say my path was “easy.” It certainly took some scrappy qualities and a lot of other outside work that I didn’t mention.
That being said, it was a whole lot of fun, and I familiarized myself with many different career possibilities. I also got to know the ins and outs of this organization better than many others, making lots of friends in the process. I’m thrilled to feel comfortable in my position and help the DAM grow and expand into paid internships that welcome diverse candidates, the reopening of the Martin building, and the creation of community events and programs that will bring Denver together.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
*This itinerary assumes that all organizations are running at full capacity and there are unlimited funds. Asking me to do a COVID itinerary on a budget would be a whole different ballgame! However, it’s still broken down by area to cut down on travel time (I want my guests to be able to get the most out of their visit). Hopefully, others enjoy some of the suggestions!
Sunday – Colorado Blvd.
• Breakfast at Snooze (I’ll recommend their sweet pancakes and the benedicts)
• Stop in at the farmers market on South Colorado Blvd. for fresh produce, including mushrooms from Megan’s Mushrooms
• Visit the Denver Zoo or Denver Museum of Nature and Science
• Sit by the lake in City Park and enjoy free Jazz in the Park – Bring a bottle of wine from Bigsby’s Folly for the full experience
• Make dinner at home with all the produce from the market
• Go out for a cocktail at Williams & Graham (not on Colorado Blvd, but worth veering off the path for)
Monday – Park Day
• Breakfast at Denver Biscuit Co (my personal go-to is the Franklin with ½ sausage and ½ mushroom gravy)
• Visit Truffle Cheese Shop and pick up cheese, bread, and meats
• Take a long stroll in City Park or Cheeseman Park and have a picnic
• Do yoga in the park with Civic Center Moves
• Dinner at City O’ City
Tuesday – South Broadway
• Coffee at Corvus and a doughnut from Wake & Bake
• Park walk in Washington Park • Lunch at Adelita’s (their sauce selections are amazing)
• Stay on South Broadway for antiquing in great shops
• Sweet Action ice cream or Dos Luces for gluten free Peruvian beer in the afternoon
• See a local band at the Hi-Dive
Wednesday – Take a Hike
• Make a quick breakfast at home then head to Golden, Boulder, or Red Rocks for a hike with fantastic views
• Drive back into town and pick up amazing sandwiches from Lou’s Italian Specials
• Stay in for the afternoon and take a television and game break
• Order Blue Pan Pizza delivery
Thursday – RiNo
• Coffee at Blue Sparrow
• Walk around all of the murals in the RiNo Arts District
• Stop in at the Denver Central Market for lunch and ice cream or chocolate truffles
• Stop in at ReRoot or Birdsall & Co. for plant shopping
• Visit Stem Ciders, Odell Brewing Company, or The Block Distillery for an afternoon drink
• Go to a jazz performance at Nocturne Jazz
• Maybe pop into Meadowlark for some dancing on the patio
Friday – Golden Triangle, Santa Fe Arts District, Colfax
• Visit the Denver Art Museum (biased opinion here)
• Lunch at Cuba Cuba
• Keep the museum joy going with the Clyfford Still Museum or Kirkland Museum of Fine Art
• First Friday Art Walk on Santa Fe to check out local galleries
• Take a drive down Colfax to see the heart of Denver
• Have dinner at Queen of Sheba Ethiopian Restaurant
• Ice cream at Nuggs or Smith + Cannon
Saturday – Downtown
• Coffee and a pastry from Little Owl Coffee
• Walk around and shop in Larimer Square
• Have lunch and browse all the shops at Dairy Block
• Go see the big blue bear by Lawrence Argent titled I See What You Mean
• Nice French dinner at LeRoux or Bistro Vendome
• Attend a Colorado Symphony or Denver Philharmonic Concert (shameless plug, I play in the Denver Phil!)
• Post-concert cocktail at Union Lodge No. 1 or The Cruise Room The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
Thank you to my parents, friends, colleagues, and life mentors. You’ve always shown me so much love and support. I only hope I do half as much for you.